On Remand from the Supreme Court, the Sixth Circuit Applies the Good Faith Exception in Carpenter

FEDagent previously reported on the Supreme Court’s opinion in Carpenter v. United States. In Carpenter, the Court held that the third-party doctrine does not apply to cell-site location information, and that the government’s acquisition of cell-site location information is a search under the Fourth Amendment requiring a warrant. On remand, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit found that the FBI agents who obtained the cell-site location information reasonably relied on the Stored Communications Act when obtaining that information, and therefore, acted in good faith.

Cell-site location information (“CSLI”) refers to the time-stamped location records generated each time a wireless device communicates with a carrier’s network by connecting to the nearest “cell site.” According to the Sixth Circuit, the proliferation of new cell sites enhances the precision of a cell phone owners’ CSLI, and CSLI has now approached GPS-level precision. As noted by the court of appeals, the “imminent launch of fifth-generation wireless technology known as 5G, promises to multiply the number of cell sites in this country.”

The court explained that against the backdrop of “this new era of connected devices,” Section 2703(d) of the Stored Communications Act permits law enforcement to obtain certain records of a person’s wireless communications whenever the government “offers specific and articulable facts showing that there are reasonable grounds to believe” the records sought “are relevant and material to an ongoing criminal investigation.” Under the court-ordered mechanism of Section 2703(d), law enforcement is not required to get a warrant before acquiring these records.

Here, the government investigated a string of robberies Timothy Carpenter and others committed in Michigan and Ohio between 2010 and 2012, and sought court orders under Section 2703(d) of the Stored Communications Act for Carpenter’s CSLI. Two magistrate judges ordered Carpenter’s wireless carriers to provide “the locations of cell/site sector (physical addresses) for the target telephones at call origination and at call termination for incoming and outgoing calls.”

The first magistrate judge ordered 152 days of CSLI from MetroPCS. The second magistrate judge ordered 7 days of CSLI from Sprint. Through the information provided by the wireless carriers, the government obtained 12,898 location points cataloging Carpenter’s movements, or approximately 101 data points per day.

Carpenter moved to suppress the cell phone data, and the district court denied the motion. At trial, the government used Carpenter’s CSLI to create a record of his physical proximity to the alleged robberies. A federal jury convicted Carpenter of robbery and gun charges. The district court then sentenced Carpenter to more than 100 years in prison, and he appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.

The Sixth Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision, and the majority rejected Carpenter’s claim that the government’s collection of his CSLI was a warrantless search in violation of the Fourth Amendment. Carpenter filed a petition for certiorari, which the Supreme Court granted.

The Supreme Court found that the government’s requests for CSLI lie at the intersection of two lines of cases. The first line of cases addresses a person’s expectation of privacy in his physical location and movements, while the second line of cases holds that a person has no legitimate expectation of privacy in information he voluntarily turns over to third parties.

The Supreme Court explained that when the government tracks CSLI, it achieves “near perfect surveillance, as if it had attached an ankle monitor to the phone’s user.” Thus, the Court found that Carpenter had a “reasonable expectation of privacy in the whole of his physical movements” as recorded by his CSLI. Under the second line of cases, the Court noted that the third-party doctrine originated decades ago, when “few could have imagined a society in which a phone goes wherever its owner goes.” As a result, the Court held that the third-party doctrine did not shield the government’s collection of CSLI from Fourth Amendment safeguards.

On remand, the Sixth Circuit was required to reevaluate whether the district court properly permitted the government to introduce Carpenter’s CSLI at trial. The court of appeals explained that although the government should have obtained a warrant, it may affirm the district court’s decision if the government acquired Carpenter’s CSLI in good faith reliance on the Stored Communications Act.

The Sixth Circuit stated that what matters here is whether it was objectively reasonable for the government to rely on the statute at the time of the search. Under the circumstances, the court found that it was reasonable for the FBI agents who acquired Carpenter’s CSLI to rely on the Stored Communications Act. The court stated that the statute contemplates the Fourth Amendment’s protections by specifying some instances where warrants are necessary, making it understandable why the agents believed a warrant was not required Section 2703(d). In addition, the court stated that at the time the requests for CSLI were granted, it had already considered reliance on Section 2703(d) to be reasonable. Moreover, the court stated that the record is devoid of evidence that the FBI agents who obtained the CSLI engaged in intentional misconduct. The court therefore affirmed the district court’s decision.

The court cautioned that going forward, the government must get a warrant or rely on a recognized exception to the warrant requirement to obtain CSLI. The court also advised that to avoid “embarrass[ing] the future,” courts must carefully and incrementally adapt their Fourth Amendment jurisprudence to advancements in the digital era.

Read the full case: United States v. Carpenter


This case law update was written by Michael J. Sgarlat, Associate Attorney, Shaw Bransford & Roth, PC.

For thirty years, Shaw Bransford & Roth P.C. has provided superior representation on a wide range of federal employment law issues, from representing federal employees nationwide in administrative investigations, disciplinary and performance actions, and Bivens lawsuits, to handling security clearance adjudications and employment discrimination cases.

Posted in Case Law Update

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